If all goes according to plans and sufficient money can be raised, Beloit College will transform the hulking power plant along the Rock River into a gleaming new activity center for students.
The college has not yet acquired Blackhawk Generating Station from Wisconsin Power and Light Co., a division of Alliant Energy. However, Alliant and Beloit College officials both say they are deep in discussions toward a redevelopment agreement on the property.
President Scott Bierman said the Beloit College Board of Trustees has authorized the administration to complete due diligence on the project and work with Alliant Energy to forge an agreement.
“This is a big deal for the board to move forward,” Bierman told the Beloit Daily News.
Included in the process is environmental testing of the site and its old coalyard.
“It’s been an industrial site for a long time,” Bierman said, adding, “to date there have been no surprises.”
Generally, with brownfield projects, environmental concerns come into play when the existing ground structure is disturbed for foundations or new buildings. Surface work, such as creating parking lots, usually does not raise concerns. The current expectation is that Beloit College extensively would remodel the Blackhawk building and create parking space without disturbing the subsurface soil.
The project would create what currently is being referred to as the “Activity and Recreation Center.” More “casually,” Bierman said, the college community is calling it “The Powerhouse.”
Among student facilities the site would house are a fitness center, swimming pool, indoor running track, health and wellness programs, food services, flexible meeting space and what officials are calling “big open space” suitable to multiple uses.
The large open space would be located toward the north of the building. The south side of the building would include the pool at the lower level, topped by a green open roof. Upper levels of the building would include food services and the running track, with meeting and special event space at the highest points. These upper levels would feature glass expanses providing one of the best riverfront views in Beloit, officials said.
The space is being created with an eye toward community opportunities to use it as well, officials said.
Initial estimates call for a $30 million project, Bierman said. He vowed the administration will secure all necessary funding without adding debt to Beloit College before the first work begins.
“I have unbridled enthusiasm for the project,” Bierman said. “It feels like the right thing for the college, and the right thing for the town.”
Included in the project will be demolition of the old fieldhouse located at the south end of the Flood Arena and sports center building.
Additionally, Bierman said an elevated walkway is anticipated running roughly from the north end of Flood Arena across Pleasant Street to connect with the new activity center.
Bierman said he was excited about how the center would connect the college with the history of the community and its riverfront, creating a constant reminder of that connection through its use. He also said the project will be a good fit with riverfront improvements made over the years by the City of Beloit and Beloit 2020.
“It’s our aspiration this project will go a long way toward completing a bookend” with riverfront improvements, Bierman said.
He estimated Beloit College and Alliant Energy are a few months away from completing an acquisition deal, and that fund-raising and construction phases would lead to a four-year completion schedule.
Patricia Kampling, chairman, president and CEO of Alliant Energy, echoed Bierman’s enthusiasm in a prepared statement.
“Wisconsin Power and Light Company, an Alliant Energy company, is excited to be partnering with Beloit College and working through the details of a potential agreement for the Blackhawk site,” she said. “The college’s vision for the transformation of this riverfront site into a state of the art student recreation and activity center that will benefit students for generations to come is very impressive and WPL is proud to be part of this effort.
“While there are still many details to work out,” Kampling said, “WPL is committed to working together with Beloit College to try to make this vision a reality.”
Competition is fierce among institutions of higher education for recruiting students these days, and families demand first-class amenities and facilities. National studies have shown student fitness and activity centers rank high on the list of desired facilities.
“Students expect it,” Bierman said. “We live in the upper Midwest” and cold winters make appropriate indoor facilities a necessity.
He said the redeveloped Blackhawk site would be “a great recruiting tool and nobody else has anything like it.”
Beloit City Manager Larry Arft said he was “very excited to hear the college board of trustees has authorized the president to move forward with final negotiations to acquire the old power plant from Alliant Energy to be repurposed. This is a unique opportunity for the college to create another high quality facility for the campus while contributing to the city’s continuing city center revitalization.”